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Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence

Dr. Nathan Emery's new book is a gold mine of information and surprises

Birds are amazing beings. They're smart and emotional, and rapidly accumulating data from detailed research shows they have advanced and highly evolved cognitive capacities. Psychology Today writers John Marzluff and Tony Angell have written many excellent and informative essays in their posts on "Avian Einsteins."

I just received an outstanding book by Dr. Nathan Emery called Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence. Dr. Emery is a senior lecturer in cognitive biology at Queen Mary University of London and a renowned researcher focusing "on what corvids, apes, and parrots understand about their social and physical worlds, especially others' mental states, insight, and imagination, as well as the psychology and evolution of innovation and creativity."

Dr. Emery's book is an easy read yet scholarly, and beautifully illustrated. It is comprised of seven chapters, each of which contains short pieces that focus on the topic at hand. The table of contents and the topics covered in each chapter can be seen here. They include discussions of bird brains, navigation, communication, social relationships including knowing friends and foes, tool manufacture and use (for which birds are very well-known), self-awareness, and how we can use what we know about bird brains and smarts to come to a further understanding of human intelligence.

The book's description reads:

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a "birdbrain." Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends--and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the "masterminds" of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

We need to move away from our current human-centered ways of thinking about the nature of intelligence, or even what intelligence is

I was most fortunate to do an interview with Dr. Emery about his latest book and plans for the future.

Why did you write Bird Brain? How long have you been studying cognition?

Ever since shifting the focus of my research from primates to corvids about 16 years ago, I've wanted to write a popular book about bird intelligence. I was originally very primatocentric, and highly biased in thinking that monkeys and apes were the smartest of all creatures. It was my wife, Nicky Clayton, who opened my eyes to what birds were capable of doing and I haven't turned back! I continue to be staggered by the intellectual capabilities of birds and wanted to share this amazement with a larger audience. I never really found the time to write a book, but a convergence of events made the time right. I'd arranged a sabbatical to begin a new research program, but was also invited by Ivy Press [Princeton University Press] to write a chapter for a book they were planning on bird intelligence. I decided that this was just the opportunity I was looking for and proposed writing the whole book myself—which I did.

What led you to organize the book as a series of very short chapters on different topics?

It was my commissioning editor, Jacqui Sayers, who suggested the book's format, and I chose the topics I thought would be of most interest to a wide audience. I was particularly keen on including information about the brain, as my training is in neuroscience, the book is called Bird Brain, and I think that the lay public is very interested in learning about how the brain works. Ivy Press placed constraints on how much could be written for each spread and each type of spread, whether an essay, case study focusing on a specific experiment, or a diagram, and this presented quite a challenge in making sure I could say what I needed to say in as few a words as possible, but still get the message across. As such, I think that the book reads more like a sophisticated coffee table book, and readers can dip in and read as much or as little as they like, in whatever order they like.

How did you choose the topics?

I was constrained in writing 6-7 chapters, each with around 12 2-page spreads. I was very keen on focusing the first chapter on how our perception of birds has changed with more sophisticated studies of the avian brain and cognition. I also wanted to introduce the readers to the physical structure of the avian brain early in the book as that was going to be a highlight of each chapter. In their book Gifts of the Crow, John Marzluff and Tony Angell presented a large number of brain diagrams at the back, but I had the opportunity to put them right in the midst of the action, in full color. Some of the diagrams are quite complex, but it's not essential to understand them in order to read and enjoy the rest of the book. The rest of the chapters discuss memory (especially spatial memory), communication (including visual and vocal communication), social behavior, tool use and problem-solving, imagination and self-awareness, and finally putting the studies into context of how we deal with birds. These topics seemed to be the obvious ones to me to display some of the most exciting research in bird cognition. Unfortunately, there was so much I wasn't able to discuss, especially with new findings appearing at a startling rate.

What are your major goals with your new book?

The main reason I signed up to write this book with Ivy Press, was that I shared their vision of what the book should look like and what it could achieve. In my spare time, I'm an illustrator interested in using images to convey complex scientific ideas to non-scientists. So, illustrations and photographs play an essential part in this book. I was involved in creating almost all the illustrations in the book from scratch, drawing them on a tablet in Photoshop. They were then adapted, sometimes in tiny ways, by three brilliant illustrators working for Ivy Press (John Woodcock, Jenny Proudfoot and Kate Osbourne). The team at Ivy certainly know what they are doing regarding book design. If nothing else, they have produced a beautiful book that people are going to want to own. My hope is that the combination of words and pictures will inspire a broad audience to think carefully about the mental capacities of birds, which might influence how they are treated in the future.

What are your main take-home messages?

There are over 10,000 species of birds, and we are at the tip of the iceberg in our understanding of what they can and cannot do. We still only know very little about a very select group of them, primarily corvids and parrots, and nothing about the majority. We do know that birds are not the birdbrains of popular understanding. In some respects, our ancestors had a better understanding of bird intelligence than we do, perhaps because we have lost our link to the natural world. We also need to move away from our current human-centered ways of thinking about the nature of intelligence, or even what intelligence is. There are different ways of thinking, adapted to the very different lifestyles of the millions of creatures on this planet. I hope this book goes some way to describing some of the wonders of one group of these creatures.

What are you working on now?

I've written and illustrated a couple of children's picture books; one a visual guide to different animal habitats, the second a story about a boy and his pet parrot, and I'm trying to find a publisher interested in producing them. I'm also writing a book for Ivy Kids on evolution, and starting to work on another popular science book about the intelligence of archosaurs, apemen and aliens. I think I may have caught the science writing bug!

Anything else you'd like to tell readers?

If you'd like to know more about bird brains and avian intelligence, I continually write blog posts on my website in response to any interesting stories or research findings on bird cognition. I've also posted the original illustrations from my book so you can see how much or how little they have changed from the published versions, as well as other illustrations, publications, details about my past and current research, etc. There is lots of other interesting stuff on there as well, which will be continually updated. Please take a look!

Bird Brains is an outstanding book I highly recommend for a broad audience

Many thanks to Dr. Emery for taking the time to do this interview. All in all, Dr. Emery's outstanding book is an easy read and I highly recommend it to a broad audience. It would be a perfect selection for undergraduate and graduate classes at the university level, and I'm sure younger readers would also get a lot out of it. Bird Brains is packed with information that will stimulate us all to rethink just who birds are and just who we are. And, there still is so much to learn.

Please stay tuned for more on the fascinating cognitive and emotional lives of the magnificent animals with whom we share out wondrous planet.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.